Best camera phone: 6 handsets tested

What's the top cameraphone on the market?

Best smartphone cameras

We've looked at the 'standard' Samsung Galaxy S4 before - this is the 16-megapixel, back-illuminated CMOS sensor, zoom-powered S4 Zoom version.

More readily than any other handset here, it resembles a digital camera from the front (or back, depending on how you look at it), though the ever so shiny high gloss finish may put off more serious photographers who are seeking a winning camera/phone combo.

That said, a physically far larger lens than found on any competing handset has got to be a draw. As what we get here is a very useful 10x optical zoom, rather than the digital variety that merely crops into an image, the handset is necessarily bulkier in width, though Samsung has done a fair job of keeping projections minimal.

S4 Zoom

A nice touch is that a manual zoom ring encircling the lens is provided for zoom control, rather than just a toggle switch elsewhere on the handset as one might find on a digital compact camera.

The zoom reach is supported by optical image stabilisation here to prevent blur resulting from hand wobble, as would be typical for this type of focal range.

The shiny glossy white finish immediately reminds us of the physically bulkier and larger touchscreen Samsung Galaxy camera - one that for all its phone-like attributes can't actually make calls. Obviously the S4 Zoom can. So is this the "best of both worlds" solution we've been waiting for?

Best smartphone cameras

The (by smartphone standards) whopper of a lens isn't the only way in which the S4 Zoom differs from the non-zoom S4. On the S4 Zoom we again get an AMOLED display for deeper blacks and all-round better contrast, but at 4.3-inches it's smaller than its non-optical zoom rivals here.

Full HD 1080p video can also be shot at a 30fps frame rate, with a microSD slot to expand the 8GB of available storage further if required - which is needed, as only 5GB of that is addressable.

Unlike on the original S4, you fortunately don't need to unclip the backplate to insert a microSD card - a covered slot is provided, as on a dedicated compact camera.

Here it's located a few centimeters from the main power button, on what, if we were looking at a camera rather than a handset, would be the base - next to a screw thread for attaching it to a tripod, hidden under a little cap to keep the dirt out.

Despite the inevitable width stemming from the internally stacked zoom lens, commendably the S4 Zoom doesn't feel like a lump.

In fact, owing in part to the rounded edges of its backplate and the curved bulge to one end for the handgrip, it's comfortable to hold.

On power up and in the camera's default setting - the camera again presents here as an app - the image in front of the handset's lens fills the whole of the screen, operational icons floating over it.

Best smartphone cameras

In terms of user interface, if you choose one of the 'Expert' shooting modes (carried over from the Android-powered Galaxy Camera) then the S4 Zoom - like the non-zoom S4 - offers up an impressively broad range of shooting modes, including options other handsets might file under a 'scene settings' option.

This selection rotates before you with a finger swipe, subtly aping the effect of adjusting a conventional shooting mode dial on a digital camera.

Select one such shooting mode - Program or Manual for example - and we're given the ability to spin a virtual lens ring to adjust exposure, ISO, white balance, metering and drive mode, while a further creative mode option facilitates adjusting color tones plus sharpness, contrast and overall color saturation.

In short, we get a more expansive range of manual photographic functions than on the majority of phone handsets.

Form vs function

We hoped that a handset looking more like a dedicated camera than any other to date would deliver results comparable to one… yet it's a case here of close, but no cigar.

There's sufficient detail displayed to make the images keepers, but again they could benefit from a little more brightness and contrast straight out of the camera in our daylight examples.

Having a 10x zoom lens at our fingertips proves a boon, as it should, for dragging the faraway closer - and the Samsung is able to deliver sharp handheld results even at full zoom.

The built-in flash is powerful to the point of bleaching out detail, though the colour is more faithful than that delivered by the HTC One thanks to the Xenon flash included. In terms of skin tones, again we get subtlety and realism.

Verdict

Auto ISO and high ISO test shots differ in that we begin to lose saturation at the highest setting, while a subtly gritty look intrudes across the whole image on close inspection.

But at least ISO 3200 here is actually usable rather than just something to put on the spec sheet. In conclusion then, not a bad showing - though you'll probably be buying this for the zoom reach first and foremost.

Pros: The only smartphone with a true zoom lens built in so far. Ability to expand memory for photos and video via microSD card slot. More expansive range of manual photographic functions than the majority of handsets.

Cons: Thanks to the zoom lens, one of the larger handsets out there - yet the screen size (though large compared to an actual digital camera) is smaller overall than most of the other top-end smartphones examined here.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review

Sample images

Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone cameras

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Best smartphone camera

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ISO samples

Best smartphone cameras

Auto ISO: click here to see the full resolution image

Best smartphone cameras

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